Twenty-three yards. That was all the Cowboys could muster for their longest offensive play against the Giants in Week 1—an innocent Tony Romo pass to Terrance Williams.
Although the Cowboys totaled 36 points, they really played a poor game offensively. With six takeaways, Dallas never should have allowed this to become a one-score contest late in the game. But the Giants’ defense played remarkably well against the ‘Boys, stifling the offense by limiting the impact of their heart and soul—wide receiver Dez Bryant.
In reality, the Giants didn’t give the Cowboys too many looks they haven’t seen in the past. They played a whole lot of Cover 2 Man-Under—a defense with two safeties deep and man coverage underneath—which is why we saw Miles Austin and Jason Witten haul in 18 combined catches over the middle. It’s also why we witnessed the duo combine for only 142 yards—a pedestrian 7.9 yards per target. In effect, Dallas used Austin and Witten as an extension of their running game.
All told, the Giants held Romo to 263 yards on 49 attempts—5.4 YPA. If we knew before the game that Romo wouldn’t break 6.0 YPA, I’d tell you the Cowboys’ chances of winning would probably be less than one-in-five. Make no mistake about it: if the Cowboys continue to play this way offensively—averaging 4.5 yards per play—they’re not going to win many ballgames.
Here’s how the Giants put the clamps on the Cowboys’ offense.
A Look at Cover 2 Man-Under
Over the past few seasons, the Giants have played Cover 2 and Cover 2 Man-Under on nearly every snap against Dallas. Most are familiar with Cover 2—a true zone coverage—especially now that Monte Kiffin is in town. In Cover 2, the safeties play the deep halves and are responsible for the deepest receiver in their area. The cornerbacks play what’s known as “curl to flat”—a fancy way of saying the underneath zone near the sideline.
In 2 Man-Under, though, everyone other than the safeties is in man coverage. That means when a receiver goes deep, he’s effectively double-teamed. No wonder the Cowboys couldn’t secure any big plays on the night; the Giants made sure they kept everything in front of them, particularly when it came to Mr. Bryant.
One of the interesting tricks the Giants employed was mixing up their looks with the cornerbacks. Even though they played a lot of Cover 2 Man-Under, the Giants didn’t always place their cornerbacks in a press position. Instead, they often played off even when in man coverage, as you can see below.
Bryant, isolated at the top of the screen opposite the Cowboys’ “Trips” formation, was able to get a clean release because the cornerback was playing off. But there were advantages for the Giants in playing with off technique, too.
As a quick side note, this particular “Gun Trips” formation is a huge tell for Dallas. I’ve tracked Cowboys plays since 2009, and the ‘Boys have run the ball from “Gun Trips” exactly three times on 310 snaps. That would be fine if they only called for the formation in passing situations, but they don’t; many of the plays come on first-and-10, second-and-short, and so on. Three-hundred seven passes, three runs. Take note, opposing defensive coordinators.
The Giants’ off coverage helped them in two ways. First, and most important, it made the cornerbacks less susceptible to the back-shoulder throw. I think the Cowboys can and should attack cornerbacks who play up in Bryant’s face by tossing back-shoulder throws all day. Bryant has perhaps the best ball skills in the NFL and a cornerback simply won’t be able to consistently stop it if he’s in a press position and forced to turn his back to Romo. By playing off, the cornerbacks could look in at Romo even while in man coverage.
Second, the tactic caused what appeared to be some hesitation in Romo since it wasn’t always clear if the Giants were in Cover 2 or Cover 2 Man-Under. With regard to underneath routes, the coverages are a whole lot different. The Giants did an outstanding job of utilizing a few small tweaks to run basically two coverages all night without becoming predictable.
Beating Cover 2 Man-Under
If the Cowboys are going to sweep the Giants this year, they’re going to need to find a way to improve against 2 Man-Under. So how can they do it?
The ‘Boys tried one of the potential solutions—placing Bryant in the slot—on a handful of plays on Sunday night. It didn’t really work out, but that’s a way to get Bryant into the weakness of any Cover 2 look—the middle of the field. They shouldn’t back away from that strategy just because it didn’t work this time around.
Second, the ‘Boys should utilize more bunch formations. By lining up three receivers in close proximity and crossing them at the line, the Cowboys will basically force the Giants into zone looks (or, at the very least, create matchup problems for whoever is covering Bryant). If the Giants stay in man coverage, they run the risk of the cornerbacks getting tangled at the line.
Finally, they need to work more double-moves. Those require adequate pass protection, of course, but the Cowboys had that for much of the game. Dallas actually tried a deep in-and-up with Bryant coming out of the half. On a third down, Bryant ran about six yards past the first down marker before breaking in.
He was trailed by cornerback Aaron Ross, who bit on the fake. Once Bryant shook him, he was basically one-on-one with the safety playing in the deep half.
Romo badly underthrew Bryant—likely because of the issue with his ribs—but it was a nice attempt from Bill Callahan to get Bryant singled up deep. If Bryant can shake the underneath cornerback, the Cowboys should take that shot with him deep every time. If he can’t, you’ve still got two defenders running deep with one man.
It’s plays like this one that show Bryant’s biggest contributions to the offense this year might be reflected in the stats for Miles Austin and Jason Witten.